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Writers are often advised to “show, not tell,” and I have to admit that this confused me for years. My internal response was: Writing is telling, what do you mean? I’m sure most people aren’t so slow on the uptake, but this post is for anyone else who’s ever been slightly perplexed by this advice.

I think the best way to discuss this is by looking at examples of telling versus showing.

 

Example One — Telling Emotional States
Hugo was furious.

Example Two — Showing Emotional States
Hugo slammed down his mug and kicked over the table.

In both cases we understand that Hugo was angry. However, the first sentence simply states the fact while the second sentence illustrates Hugo’s anger. The second sentence paints a more detailed picture for the reader by showing Hugo’s actions which are sufficient to convey his emotional state. The actions also add to the excitement.

 

Example One — Telling Physical States
Liz walked home after work as the sun was setting.

Example Two — Showing Physical States
Liz was blinded by the glare off the glass towers as she walked home from work.

Both sentences let the reader know that Liz walked home from work at sunset. In the second example the reader is shown something that the character would’ve seen or experienced at sunset, and hence the reader doesn’t need to be told that it’s sunset.

 

Example One — Telling Physical Details
Harsha had a pierced nose.

Example Two — Showing Physical Details
The gold trim on Harsha’s sari matched her nose ring.

Again, we know from both examples that Harsha had a pierced nose. The difference is that the second example communicates this without stating it directly while incorporating additional details.

I suppose showing sort of boils down to saying things with subtlety, or saying them without stating them directly. And rather than be intimidated by this advice, we can think of it as license to indulge our writerly sensibilities and get creative.